Democracy on trial

Monday Column by Emmanuel Yawe | 08024565402

These are not the best of days for multiparty, western style democracy. All over the world things appear to be upside down for this system.
For the United Kingdom, it all started on June 23 2016 when a referendum to decide whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union was held and won by those who wanted her to leave by 51.9% to 48.1%. The referendum turnout was 71.8%, with more than 30 million people taking part.
The vote distribution showed that England voted for Brexit, by 53.4% to 46.6%. Wales also voted for Brexit, with Leave getting 52.5% of the vote and Remain 47.5%. Scotland and Northern Ireland both backed staying in the EU. Scotland backed Remain by 62% to 38%, while 55.8% in Northern Ireland voted Remain and 44.2% Leave.
The decision to leave the European Union, an economic and political partnership involving 28 European countries which began after World War Two to foster economic co-operation, with the idea that countries which trade together were more likely to avoid going to war with each other has caused unexpected political ripples. It cut short the political career of the British Prime Minister David Cameron who was in his opposition to the notion and called for the vote. He resigned when the vote was against his belief.
But the Brexit vote has turned out to be a major test for the United Kingdom with its unwritten constitution. Apparently, those who voted for Brexit were hugely ignorant of its implications. The economic issues involved were in the first instance too complex to be understood by the man on the street. They thought Brexit meant the exit of non-British workers who were usurping their jobs in a rather tight labour market.
It has since become clear to them that Brexit means huge economic losses to the United Kingdom with the possibility of a political dissolution of the United Kingdom itself along the crack-lines of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In the logjam, Brexit threatens the political career of yet another Prime Minister, Theresa May. The British Parliament remains largely hostile to her proposals for a deal with the European Union. They have been involved in a game of cloak and dagger. This week will prove how far the unwritten British Constitution will meet this novel test.
The next trial of democracy comes from the United States of America. It all started on November 8, 2016 when Americans voted Donald Trump who received 306 pledged electoral votes versus 232 for Clinton. The official counts were 304 and 227 respectively. Trump received a smaller share of the popular vote than Clinton, which made him the fifth person to be elected the US president while losing the popular vote.
Trump’s victory was considered a stunning political upset by most observers, as polls had consistently showed Hillary Clinton with a nationwide—though diminishing—lead, as well as a favorable advantage in most of the competitive states.
Trump is an unusual President. He is the wealthiest President in US history. He is also the first president without prior government or military service. Of the 43 previous presidents, 38 had held prior elective office, two had not held elective office but had served in the Cabinet, and three had never held public office but had been commanding generals.
He has embarked on unusual policies during his presidency. Trump ordered travel ban on citizens from several Muslim-majority countries, citing security concerns; after legal challenges, the Supreme Court upheld the policy’s revision. He has enacted a tax cut package for individuals and businesses, which also rescinded the individual health insurance mandate and allowed oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge. He partially repealed the Dodd Frank Act that had imposed stricter constraints on banks in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
He has pursued his America First agenda in foreign policy, withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the Iran Nuclear deal. He recognized Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel, imposed import tariffs on various goods, triggering a trade dispute with China and negotiated with North Korea seeking denuclearization.
He successfully nominated two justices to the Supreme Court. After Trump dismissed FBI Director James Comey, the Justice Department appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to proceed with investigating links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government regarding its election interference and any matters arising from the probe. The ongoing investigation has so far led to guilty pleas by several Trump associates to criminal charges including for lying to investigators, campaign finance violations, and tax fraud. Trump has repeatedly denied accusations of collusion and obstruction of justice, calling the investigation a politically motivated “witch hunt”
With the ongoing exposures in the media of his rather odd relationship with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Robert Mueller investigation remains the greatest trial of democracy in America. It could lead to an impeachment motion and a major disruption of democracy in the US.
Back home in Nigeria, we have adopted a democratic system which has been in gear since 1999. It is a system based on the concept of separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
In the beginning, this political machine was steered by the political behemoth known as the People’s Democratic Party, PDP. But 16 years of profound misrule by the PDP generated a massive demand for change which led to the comprehensive defeat of the behemoth at the polls in 2015.
The demand for change has however led President Muhammadu Buhari the chief advocate of change to go on collusion course with the other branches of government. The head of the Legislature, Senate President Bukola Saraki has been docked. And over the weekend we heard the frightening news that the head of the Judiciary, the Chief Justice of Nigeria Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen will also be docked this week.
In my interview with Justice Muhammadu Uwais, the Chief Justice of the Federation at the beginning of this democratic dispensation in November 1999, he emphasized the concept of separation of powers in this system. He quoted most profusely sections 292 of our Constitution to buttress the fact that the independence of the judiciary under our system is guaranteed.
The docking of Justice Onnoghen by the executive this week looks like an affront to what Uwais told me in 1999. But as bizarre as it may seem, this is democracy. And under this system of government even in such established democracies like in the UK and the US, democracy could easily go on trial.
Early in June 2009, General Collin Powell who made his mark in the US Army and later took a shot at politics, becoming the US Secretary of state told us in Abuja that democracy is a noisy business. I therefore solemnly advise my readers not to panic when they see cacophony in our system in Nigeria. Democracy is simply on trial.

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